Unceremonious. No gold watch. A private moment at 00:01 on the 27th June 2016 as I watched the lump sum plop into my account. Twenty-eight years as a teacher in the secondary and further education sectors is probably enough. I no longer rely on walking through a classroom door for the paying of bills. Instead those bills are covered by Teachers’ Pensions on the 26th of each month, as long as I stay alive. Nothing really compares to the knowledge when you wake up each morning that all you have to do in order to keep being paid is make sure your heart is beating. I won’t be ordering any yachts or helicopters, but I can live on it. Until recently I always thought of the payment to Teachers’ Pensions as a compulsory levy, a bit like tax. If it was possible to opt out of the scheme when I started teaching, I had no knowledge of that. Good.
Teaching has never been how I defined myself. It was just something I did for a while. You can’t simply believe in your own professional world because you’re in it. Other criteria need to be applied, like whether you feel culturally or emotionally supported or nurtured by your working environment. Too many teachers I’ve met have seen classroom practice as a battle of wills rather than a collaborative enterprise, sometimes boasting about making children cry in what I have always seen as an absurd act of cruelty. For me it was largely about making students laugh and helping them to debunk the system, while at the same time learning some stuff. Aggression and confrontation never seemed to do anything other than break down communication and cause resentment. If someone gave me a coherent reason for handing in that day’s work the next day, or even if the reason was incoherent and the person seemed upset, that was always fine. If they needed to call their parents on their mobile phone about something that they saw as urgent, that was fine too. I generally allowed people to eat or drink in the classroom, as long as they put the wrappers and cartons in the bin. If the room was cold, they kept their hats and coats on. This is what it is to be human. We are not resources or statistics, but people.
Until the twenty-first century, I had only ever encountered a reasonably tight consensus on what learning was. New knowledge or skills were acquired and could then be applied in future acts of analysis, decision making or reflection. The point was always that you couldn’t establish whether learning had taken place until you had seen the person try to apply the new knowledge or skill several times, over a period of at least several weeks. Now, the teaching profession in England and Wales is forced to live with a notion of micromanaged learning: learning must be seen to have taken place within any ten minute chunk on which an observer chooses to eavesdrop. When I first heard the term ‘learning walk’ in 2012 it evoked teacher-led nature trails on summer afternoons when the besieged students for a change didn’t have to do anything except walk, pretend to listen and breathe the fresh air. Sounded nice. It soon became clear that they were actually run-for-your-mortgage opportunities for managers to see learning taking place in randomly selected classrooms, in that golden ten minute window. What a sack of rotting faeces. In reality it’s a cycle of performance. Lessons are timed to the minute, for fear the students may get the chance to interact with each other or with the teacher in a way that’s purely social. Heaven forfend that social interaction should interfere with learning. And then we wonder why the average teacher’s Sunday night resolve to dispense with reaching for alcohol as a stress reliever has been abandoned by Tuesday.
Of course I understand that it’s Ofsted driven, and I’ve heard many times the mantra that if we don’t do what Ofsted say they will close the school, but the problem with Ofsted is that they have changed their minds so many times about what they’re looking for, since they breach-birthed themselves slippery and wailing like dementors into the classrooms of the previously content twenty plus years ago, that they cannot possibly be an organisation fit for purpose. Imagine Trading Standards revising their framework of inspection every two or three years. Many people in the profession have confirmed this opinion, privately of course, always with one eye on that mortgage. But still we get those giant vinyl banners cable tied to railings, proclaiming ‘Ofsted Outstanding’, as though that judgement were a permanent vindication of the school’s or college’s approach. In the real world the currency of the judgement has begun to fade before the last cable tie has been pulled tight, and that teacher who called in at the pub on her way home to reward herself for that Monday afternoon’s Outstanding observation has her approval rating set back to zero the very next wet Tuesday morning in November at 8.00am sharp. Ofsted’s stand out achievement has been a top-down homogenisation of classroom practice, removing the possibility of imagination, creativity, autonomy or intelligence in the delivery of lessons. Apparently now these are seen as negative qualities in the recruitment of new teachers: intelligent people are likely to be ‘awkward’ and adopt a critical view of the institutional ‘vision’. Yesterday I noticed again that bus stop advert enticing people into the profession with a picture of a teacher and a student, one saying ‘I’m making a difference’ and the other saying ‘I’m making progress’. Such is the binary process we are now led to believe drives forward learning. I would like to have an optimistic view of the future of the profession in England and Wales, but I’ve seen too many people psychologically mangled and shat out by it to have anything approaching that optimism.
So, all said, I’m out, but I’m out with an optimistic view of my own future and some good memories of pushing forward the frontiers of surreal and humour and sharing the undermining of the status quo in many classrooms over many years, with hundreds of teenagers. Young people will always for me have the clearest view of what it is to be alive. I remain a teenager mentally. Responsibility is overrated. Somehow I was never given my own classroom, always remaining peripatetic. Perhaps an appropriate metaphor: someone who was not considered mature enough to manage his own domain. Set up your stall, talk some shit, move on to the next venue and see who else might be prepared to listen.